Presented by Avco Embassy, distributor of several important ‘80s horror films like The Howling (1981), Dead & Buried is a moody and disturbing little gem that artfully mixes skewed dark humour with grim slasher madness, witchcraft, and the walking dead.
Disarmingly, the movie opens with idyllic shots of a seaside town that is seemingly transported from the 1940s, set to soothing music with a slightly melancholy melody slowly keyed out on a piano. A photographer sets up his tripod on the beach, waves crashing on the sand, a slight gauzy look to the shots. The cameraman’s lens alight upon sexy blonde Lisa (Lisa Blount), a splash of crimson in her blouse. They flirt, he takes pictures of her, she comes onto him, and then the tone abruptly shifts to stark horror. He’s beaten by a group of men, tied to a post with a fishing net, covered in gasoline and, with a “Welcome to Potter’s Bluff”, is set alight to burn alive. The crisped photographer is later found on the road in his van, the vehicle on fire, which is meant to explain the horrific burns on the victim. Funeral parlor owner Dobbs (Jack Albertson) arrives on the scene of the “traffic accident” in his meat wagon, old jazz music pouring out of the vehicle, signalling him as the town bizarro.
Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farantino) suspects that the body was burned somewhere else and placed in the vehicle. Then another corpse appears, of a drunk that we earlier saw graphically slashed with a boat hook. Something is clearly amiss in the sleepy seaside town of Potters Bluff. Things get stranger when the murder victims turn up very much alive. And why is the Sheriff’s schoolteacher wife Janet (Melody Anderson) giving her class a lecture on witchcraft?
Though the ocean doesn’t figure prominently in the narrative, Dead and Buried fits comfortably within the “seaside horror” subgenre. John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) and Armando de Ossorio’s final Blind Dead tale Night of the Seagulls (1976) similarly feature seaside towns with dark, supernatural undercurrents. Not to mention the Something to Tide you Over segment of Creepshow (1982), in which Ted Danson is the shambling, seaweed-encrusted dead. The ocean is often used in supernatural literature as a source of the creeping uknown, inhabited by lethal organisms that are unknown to human sensibilities. For Dead and Buried, having Potters Bluff as a coastal community imbrues the story with a feeling of brooding mystery. The sea’s fearful enigma bounds the town and gives texture to the setting: boats on dry land like corpses; sea mists drifting across the frame; boat hooks and fishing nets are used for murder and mutilation. The setting becomes an indelible part of the impact of the movie.
There are several scenes that conjure up an impressively spooky atmosphere, the moody and evocative photography layered with shadows and fog. One sequence with a family pursued in an abandoned house along the shore by sinister figures in dark and mist is reminiscent of a scene from The Fog. With villagers slowly and mercilessly stalking outsiders stranded in the coastal town It’s also suggestive of Lovecraft’s story Shadow over Innsmouth. The frequently spine-chilling photography is by cinematographer Steven Poster, who was second unit director of photography for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986).
There are many macabre touches, some of which hint at the project’s origins as more of a black comedy. Jack Albertson’s characterization of the mortician is one such element, an eccentric necro-artist who plays big band music while lovingly restorting mutilated corpses. Another is the psychopathic denizens of Potters Bluff taking photographs of their victims, with flashbulbs popping, as they swarm in for the kill. (One of the mob is, incidentally, Robert Englund.) The grim murder scenes are aided immeasurably in their impact by the makeup effects and puppetry of Stan Winston, working here in his third cinematic feature after Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator (1980) and Heartbeeps (1981). The one Winston effect that everyone who’s seen this remembers—the hypodermic needle to the eye—still packs a punch.
The screenwriters Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon had worked on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), a fact that the production company Producers Sales Organization leveraged to pre-sell distribution rights to foreign territories without even releasing any story details. Using this tactic, PSO apparently secured half the budget before Dead & Buried began shooting.
The transfer on Blue Underground’s 4K disc is a new restoration approved by the Director of Photography Steven Poster, scanned in 4K 16-bit from its 35mm interpositive, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. This gorgeous transfer preserves the filmic look, keeping moderate grain intact while making the vivid colours in the drip the frame with mood. Black areas are a deep ink, especially in the many night time shots. There is a deliberate soft-focus look to the photography that is brought to life brilliantly on the disc.
*Denotes new bonus features.
- #1 with Director Gary A. Sherman
- #2 with Co-Writer/Co-Producer Ronald Shusett and Actress Linda Turley
- #3 with Cinematographer Steve Poster, ASC
- *#4 with Film Historians Troy Howarth and Nathaniel Thompson
Perhaps I’m jaded, but having four audio commentaries is a bit exhausting and one wonders how much value there can be in six hours of discussion of a modestly budgeted horror film. The commentary by Sherman seems the most informative, with a plethora of behind the scenes detail. The sole new commentary by Howarth and Thompson is lively and edifying.
*Behind the Scenes of Dead & Buried (33 mins) — The first Assistant Director and Director of Photography left an 8mm camera on set that anyone could pick up and shoot with. The multiple hours of footage was edited down to about half an hour. The footage is silent, with several of the production crew commenting on it. It’s a fun look at the shooting of the production.
*Dead & Buried Locations: Now & Then (4 mins) — A brief look at how the locations in Mendocino, California appear today. Not much has changed.
*Murders, Mystery, and Music – Interviews with Director Gary Sherman and Composer Joe Renzetti (15 mins) — A warm and informative chat that covers how they started working together and Renzetti’s approach to the score.
The Pages of Potters Bluff – Interview with Novelization Author Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (13 mins) — A well-known horror writer, Yarbo discusses being “centred in the craft” while writing the book of the movie. It’s an fascinating insight into the almost lost craft of novelizing a film, something that was popular before the advent of home video versions made the rewatching of movies accessible to all.
Stan Winston‘s Dead & Buried EFX (18 mins) — Makeup effects and puppetry genius Winston talks about how he got into the business, his influences, and his work on Dead and Buried. Impressively, this production was before Stan Winston Studios existed and so the f/x artist did the intricate work almost entirely alone.
Robert Englund: An Early Work of Horror (12 mins) — A bit player in Dead and Buried, Englund chats about his involvement in the production.
Dan O’Bannon: Crafting Fear (14 mins) — O’Bannon discusses his approach to “weird tales”, including the influence of H.P. Lovecraft.
Poster & Still Galleries (broken down into: Posters; Advertising Materials; Japanese Souvenir Program; Lobby Cards; Stills; Stan Winston’s FX; and Video & Book).
Steven Poster’s Location Stills
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD by Joe Renzetti
*Booklet with essay by Michael Gingold
Blue Underground continues its run of glorious 4K presentations of genre films with this vividly cinematic rendering of cult reanimated corpse movie Dead & Buried. Welcome to Potters Bluff! If you see someone with a flashbulb, run.